March 12, 2020

FOGcon 2020 Report

FOGcon 10 was last weekend, and it already seems like months ago in another era. During those last days before it became fully clear that large gatherings should be avoided, around 150 speculative literature fans came together to geek about books, other media, and the connections between imaginative stories and the real world.

There was much talk of COVID-19. (I sang "Come On Eileen" at karaoke in tribute.) We elbow-bumped and flashed the Vulcan salute instead of hugging hello. We washed our hands a lot. (The hotel staff reported they'd never had to replenish the soap and paper towels so frequently.) Despite the undercurrent of uncertainty, we had a great con.

A number of people had to make the decision not to attend due to health or travel situations, and that included one of our Honored Guests, Nisi Shawl. Happily, we were able to arrange some teleconferencing at short notice so Nisi could participate in their programming remotely. It was delightful to have them onscreen sharing their thoughts about writing and inspiration during an excellent roundtable with authors from the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop of Oakland.

Our other Honored Guest, Mary Anne Mohanraj, was present to participate in a number of panels, including one I moderated. I was very pleased by our lively discussion of societal defaults, cultural assumptions, and how genre fiction can challenge these. Mary Anne was also part of a fun panel about Food in Genre Fiction, and the topic of food made its way onto other panels, because food is great (and also Mary Anne has a new cookbook out). During her presentation on running genre nonprofits, I took copious notes on ideas that might help FOGcon grow into the future.

I attended a couple of standout panels about horror, a genre that tends to get less attention at the con than science fiction and fantasy, and one I'm gradually consuming more often. At the first of these panels, I enjoyed seeing film stills that illustrate the ways color is used in horror movies. At the other, I loved hearing the panelists analyze how horror books and films have commented on class.

As the real world takes on the qualities of various speculative genres and we hunker down at home, I'm glad I have another year of FOGcon memories to look back on and the usual long list of story recommendations to keep me distracted. I hope you all stay safe and well entertained!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Electric Lit offers a list of books about pandemics "for people who find it oddly soothing to read about plagues." I'm in that camp, and I can heartily recommend about half these books.

March 4, 2020

February Reading Recap

With FOGcon nearly here, it's appropriate that the novels I'm recommending all take different approaches to speculative fiction:

EVERFAIR by Nisi Shawl: At the end of the nineteenth century, a group of black American Christian missionaries and white British Fabian socialists get together to purchase part of the Congo from the cruel King Leopold II of Belgium. The settlers name their new nation Everfair and attempt to provide a safe haven where the local population can escape Leopold's atrocities. As Everfair grows, the many differing goals of its founders come into conflict. The hereditary king of the territory once claimed by Belgium and now by Everfair also has plans and opinions about the new colonizers.

EVERFAIR is an impressive novel that covers thirty eventful years of alternate history, told through the well-differentiated perspectives of a dozen characters, in less than 400 pages. My summary didn't even mention the story's steampunk technology, including the fleet of aircanoes (similar to blimps) the characters use to wage war and travel in peacetime. A lot happens in this story, and it happens fast. Within the space constraints, Shawl draws the characters and their motivations very well, but I wished for more time to get to know them all. Despite that, I found much to admire and think about in this smart, exciting take on colonialism and utopianism.

MAZES OF POWER by Juliette Wade: In the underground cities of Varin, life operates according to a strict caste system and rigid cultural norms. Tagaret is from a powerful family in the noble class, and his cruel father would like to see him in line for the Eminence's throne. But Tagaret has no interest in politics, unlike his younger brother, who schemes constantly and imagines threats everywhere. When their city is thrown into turmoil by disease and a battle over succession, both brothers end up with crucial roles to play. So does their mother's new servant, who wants nothing more than to serve his lady faithfully, even when he discovers this entails more secrecy and danger than anticipated.

The world of this story is intricately, impressively developed. Wade does a good job conveying information within scenes, but there's a lot to absorb at the beginning, and it took me a little while to become fully invested in the world and characters. After a couple of chapters with each of the viewpoints, the story and its many conflicts pulled me in, and I developed a fondness for the three young men at the center, even the one who's a pretty horrible person. I did find it hard at times to understand characters' strong emotional reactions, and I wished for more to be revealed about the underground setting and its technology. But this is a promising first book in a series, and I look forward to more.

THE LOST BOOK OF ADANA MOREAU by Michael Zapata: In 1916, Adana Moreau escapes the Dominican Republic during the American occupation and guerrilla insurgency. She makes her way to New Orleans with the help of a kind pirate who becomes her husband. When their curious son Maxwell learns to read, so does Adana, and she develops a great love for books, especially science fiction and horror. She writes a novel of her own, a post-apocalyptic adventure story with parallel universes. It's published to some success, but while Adana is writing the sequel, she grows fatally ill and burns the manuscript she won't live to finish. In 2004, Saul Drower's grandfather dies, leaving behind his science fiction collection, cassette tapes of oral history interviews, and a mysterious package addressed to a Maxwell Moreau.

This wonderful novel is full of book love. While it's not a work of science fiction, its characters view the world with sci-fi sensibilities: "The sea was deep blue and alien and as vast as the sky. She imagined that in the distant future the end of the world would have its origins there and for some unknown reason this put her at ease." "His grief was already traveling backward in time from Chicago to Tel Aviv. He was already meeting himself coming the other way, like a shitty space-time opera..."

The book revolves around the literary mystery that connects the two sets of characters, all of whom I felt such tenderness for. Even more that that, it revolves around stories and journeys and the rambling path both often take. Tangents and recollections break into the narrative frequently, and I found these digressions all just as gripping as the plot I was eagerly following. Zapata has crafted a gorgeous, unusual tale, and I hope more people will find their way to it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Rachel Vorona Cote writes about Ramona Quimby and other beloved characters from my childhood: "In 1955, Ramona Quimby, a near American cousin of Pippi Longstocking, tumbled into the picture, all scraped knees and exuberant doodles. She and her creator, author Beverly Cleary, united with Pippi and Lindgren in literary confederation, bright beacons for little girls who have been variously told they are too much: too loud or pesky or hyperactive."

February 27, 2020

Ready for FOGcon and Beyond

It's one week until FOGcon, and I've been busy preparing for the tenth year of this awesome speculative fiction convention. This year, for the first time, I took on responsibility for the program book that contains information about the honored guests, the programming schedule, and so on. The book is professionally printed, with gorgeous cover art, so it serves as a nice souvenir of the con as well as being useful.

As program book coordinator, I collected all the different pieces that go into the book, edited everything, and did the layout. I had very little knowledge of layout or design going into this, so that part was a challenging but fun learning experience. I think it all turned out pretty well. You can see the PDF version on the FOGcon site.

Creating the program book was a big job for a couple of weeks, and the timing was good for me to handle it because I'm between things. Behind me is the completed novel revision, and I'm currently at a waiting stage with that manuscript. So now that I've taken time to recharge, caught up on other stuff, and finished this volunteer project, I'm ready to move ahead to... something.

If I'm honest, the program book timing also worked out well in that it provided a virtuous excuse to put off figuring out what comes next. I wish I had a solid novel idea that I could get started on drafting or outlining, but everything swirling around in my head is half-formed. I hope that if I settle my mind down to focusing on the possibilities, things will gel. But that requires convincing myself to get started, and I keep finding more reasons to delay. It's time to get back to writing. Definitely after FOGcon, anyway.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund considers inspiration: "There's a fine line between seeking out inspiration and working. When it's time to put in the effort, do the work -- don't look for inspiration because you'll likely find what little time you may have taken up by the literary equivalent of hollow calories."

February 5, 2020

January Reading Recap

I started off the year as I mean to go on -- with a lot of reading!

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid: Emira is out on a Saturday night when the family she babysits for calls and begs her to take their toddler away from the house while they deal with an emergency. As Emira skillfully entertains Briar in a fancy grocery store, another customer grows suspicious about the black woman with the little white girl. There's an incident with a security guard that Emira just wants to forget, but Briar's mother, Alix, considers it a sign that she needs to start taking a more active interest in her babysitter. While Alix enacts an agenda to improve Emira's life, Emira's actual life proceeds in directions that would surprise her. One development in particular threatens to make all the characters examine their own motives and assumptions -- or not, as the case may be.

This novel is a delight in so many ways. The dialogue is some of the best I've ever read, with each character speaking in exactly the way that sounds natural and alive for them, even the toddler. The well-crafted plot is tight and tense, with great use of dramatic irony to set up a situation that the reader, but none of the characters, knows is poised to explode. Through alternating points of view that are compassionate to both characters, Reid shows how Emira and Alix's experiences and priorities differ. SUCH A FUN AGE offers a nuanced commentary on class, race, and privilege, an insightful look at caregiving, and a page-turner of a story.

INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu: Willis Wu is Generic Asian Man, or sometimes Delivery Guy or Dead Asian Guy. His lifelong dream has been to attain the role of Kung Fu Guy, the highest rank available to an Asian actor. Willis, his aging parents, and all their Chinatown neighbors work at the Golden Palace restaurant, which serves as an interior on the cop show Black and White. In the world of this story, there is no reality beyond the show, or at least Willis can't conceive of any bigger dream than playing a stereotyped other in the dichotomy of Black and White.

INTERIOR CHINATOWN (or, INTERIOR: CHINATOWN) is another great, weird work of metaphorical metafiction from Yu. Since Willis exists inside a TV world, the novel is laid out in the font and format of a screenplay, with longer prose sections mixed in among the centered dialogue. Rather than becoming a tedious gimmick, the format grows even more clever as the story proceeds and Willis strains against the limitations of his life. This novel is funny and heart-wrenching by turns, and it's packed with sharp observations on race in America. I recommend it, and I guarantee you've never read anything quite like it.

HERE AND NOW AND THEN by Mike Chen: Eighteen years ago, Kin was on a Temporal Corruption Bureau mission when he became stranded in 1996. Unable to return to 2142 or even hold on to the memories of his life there, Kin built a new life. It's been a happy one, with a wife and now teenage daughter who know nothing about his past in the future. Then another TCB agent finally appears to whisk Kin back to 2142, just weeks after his departure. He's supposed to slide seamlessly into the life he can't quite remember, but he isn't about to forget the family he left behind.

It's a cool premise, and the plot is clever and fast-paced. At points, I did wonder, "Since they have time travel, couldn't they just...?", but I was willing to overlook those holes to enjoy the inventive story. Other flaws bothered me more, such as a flatness to the characters that meant the novel didn't deliver as much emotional impact as it was going for. In general, I wished for a richer, more nuanced version of this story, but this was a fun read with some touching moments. Chen just released a second novel, A BEGINNING AT THE END, and since it's set in a post-pandemic San Francisco, I may be picking it up.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt opens with our narrator, Richard, and his friends murdering one of their college classmates. Richard then goes back to the beginning to explain what took him from an unhappy upbringing in California to a small college in Vermont, where he enrolls in an immersive study of Greek and other classical topics. His classmates in this insulated course of study, the eventual murder co-conspirators and victim, are a tight group of friends who are reluctant to welcome an outsider. But as the months go on, Richard gains acceptance and finds happiness with his new friends, until he discovers the conflicts and secrets splintering the group.

I read THE SECRET HISTORY because for years I've encountered people talking about their love for this novel in ways and contexts that suggested I would also enjoy it. Sorry, friends, but not only did I not enjoy it, I'm baffled as to why this lengthy book is so popular. Sure, the writing is strong enough at the sentence and paragraph level, and the characters are entertaining, but it takes such a long time for anything to happen, and then most of it doesn't amount to anything.

The story slows down right after the intriguing prologue that establishes the murder, but eventually conflict starts to brew again, though unfortunately Richard learns about the most exciting events secondhand. For a while, I kept believing there was a solid plot at the core, despite the filler that constantly works against it. An example of this dilution is that Richard speaks of how he and the other students admire their charismatic professor, but the teacher is absent for such long stretches of the text that it's hard to accept his impact on most of what occurs. At the halfway point, the story arrives back at the murder, and I looked forward to exploring the uncharted territory ahead. Alas, the various tantalizing plot possibilities went nowhere. After another fairly pointless section, the final set of conflicts and turns lead to an underwhelming conclusion, and Richard's story fizzles out in an unsatisfying epilogue. For another perspective on how the novel unfolds, consult almost anyone else who's read it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Electric Lit, Michael Zapata recounts the stories of books that were almost lost to history: "At some point, while both finishing the resulting novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, and searching for my great-grandfather's poems, which my grandfather incredibly discovered on his 100th birthday, I began to wonder about the innumerable books condemned to the abyss by personal and historical ruptures of space and time, and all those books nearly lost to history which, through impossible odds, still reach us like shadows from other worlds."

January 22, 2020

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2020

Whatever else happens in 2020, it's set to be another great year for books. These are the novels I've been most anticipating reading over the next few months:

INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu (January 28): Yu's previous novel was HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE, a moving family story that takes a metaphorical, meta-fictional approach to time travel. His new novel, described as "a send-up of Hollywood tropes and Asian stereotypes," sounds just as unusual, clever, and thoughtful.

MAZES OF POWER by Juliette Wade (February 4): I know Juliette from FOGcon and have been following her writing journey for years, so I'm thrilled that she's publishing her first novel. The book, which begins a series, is set in a richly constructed world with a strict caste system. The story involves a political struggle and maybe an epidemic, and it's been getting rave advance reviews.

88 NAMES by Matt Ruff (March 17): I'm a longtime fan of everything Ruff has written. His most recent book was LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, a story of supernatural and racist horrors that's currently being adapted for TV. 88 NAMES features a virtual reality game world and a mysterious figure who might be Kim Jong-un, so it's sure to be wild.

THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel (March 24): Mandel's last novel, STATION ELEVEN, remains one of my favorite apocalypse stories (and is also getting a TV adaptation). The new book has a complicated jacket description that Mandel sums up as "a ghost story that's also about white collar crime and container shipping." I'm certainly intrigued.

WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL by Rahul Kanakia (March 31): I loved Kanakia's smart first novel, ENTER TITLE HERE, which follows an ambitious high school senior on a shameless quest to manipulate her way into Stanford. Her new book also stars a high school student with a plan -- one that's thrown off track when he hooks up with his guy friend and has to reconsider his sexuality and identity.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Eater, Jaya Saxena interviews Jasmine Guillory about celebrating food in her romance novels: "In my books, I really wanted to have people eating meals together and not feeling like there was something wrong with them. To a certain extent, that is a little bit of a fantasy. But I do know plenty of women who love to eat and don't have a source of anxiety with food. I want food to be joyful and fun no matter what it is." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

January 13, 2020

2019 By The Books

Since it's January, I can now safely reflect on my favorite books of last year without the risk of omitting something wonderful I read right at the end. My practice of waiting for the new year was even justified this time around, since one of my picks captivated me during the final week of 2019.

Last year I established that my reading patterns have become fairly consistent, and that remains the case, though my count of 39 books is an uptick from previous years. Two-thirds of those were 2019 releases, many that I was eagerly awaiting. I only read two books published before 2000, both toward the end of the year. I may continue the trend of mixing in older books with the recent stuff, but I'm also excited about a long list of books coming out in 2020, so I don't expect a major shift.

As tends to be the case, about a third of what I read stands out as exceptional. Rather than trying to narrow the list, I'm going to include them all, each with a pointer to the monthly recap that contains my original, fuller recommendation.

If asked to name a single favorite book of 2019, I'd go with THE OLD DRIFT by Namwali Serpell (July/August) for containing so much of all the things I love to read about. This epic tale of families tied together across generations details the history of Zambia, speculates on the technology of the future, takes mysterious and fantastical turns, plays with language, and throws wonderful characters into love and conflict. While THE OLD DRIFT does it all, these sorts of elements also recur in my other top books of the year.

Families entwined by past events are central to YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY by Steph Cha (December). In present-day Los Angeles, a Korean-American family and a black family are shaped as well as linked by the racial tensions and unrest of the early 1990s.

Race relations are given careful consideration throughout GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS by Mira Jacob (March). In collages of drawn characters, photographs, and speech bubbles, the author attempts to answer her biracial son's questions while reflecting on her own upbringing with Indian immigrant parents.

Trying to make sense of family is a big concern for the narrator of THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett (December). The story charts the bond between a brother and sister for decades as the rest of the family and relationships in their lives come and go.

January 7, 2020

December Reading Recap

I closed out 2019 with a great reading month. In my next post, I'll look back at my whole reading year.

YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY by Steph Cha follows a Korean-American family and a black family in present-day Los Angeles, uncovering their connections to the city's unrest in the early 1990s. Grace works at the pharmacy owned by her immigrant parents and wishes her older sister would reconcile with their mother, or at least explain why she stopped talking to her. Shawn has been putting his life back together ever since the violent death of his older sister and hopes that his cousin's release from prison won't bring further turmoil to the family. Grace and Shawn are just trying to get along in their very different lives until a shocking crime impacts them both and raises questions about the past.

This is a masterfully crafted novel at every level. The characters, situations, and difficult topics are all presented with realistic nuance. The plot is a tense page-turner, and Cha draws on her experience writing detective novels to set up a compelling mystery. She also draws from history, basing the story's catalyst on a real event that happened around the time of the Rodney King beating, and I was fascinated to learn about it. I highly recommend this novel to all readers.

THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett: Danny is eight and Maeve is fifteen when their father first brings Andrea to the Dutch House for a tour. The house, Dutch because of its original owners, is a grand home outside Philadelphia that Danny and Maeve's father purchased in 1946 for their mother, who left when Danny was too small to remember. By the time Danny is fifteen, he and his sister no longer live at the Dutch House, but Andrea does. The siblings begin a habit of parking on the street outside the house to observe and discuss, a tradition they continue for decades. As Danny grows up and makes a family of his own, his bond with Maeve remains central to his life, and for good or bad, so does their past in the house.

I loved this book and the brother-sister relationship at its core. Patchett is a master at crafting distinctive, fully realized characters, and I now feel like I've known Danny and Maeve personally all these years. The portrayal of a long span of time with the aid of quick jumps forward and back is similar to Patchett's equally excellent COMMONWEALTH, though this novel's approach is more methodical. The confidently rendered characters and structure, the engrossing story, and the subtle humor place THE DUTCH HOUSE among my favorite books of the year and confirm Patchett as one of my favorite authors.

GIOVANNI'S ROOM by James Baldwin opens with the narrator alone in a house in France. David's girlfriend is on a ship back to America (it's the 1950s) after understanding that he never really loved her. Giovanni, who he may have truly loved, is sentenced to die at the guillotine in the morning. From this shocking start, the novel goes back to tell of David's first sexual encounter with a boy in Brooklyn, his move to Paris to find or escape himself, and all that occurred between meeting Giovanni and Giovanni committing his crime.

This is an emotionally intense story, beautifully written but difficult to read. The setup imbues every event with foreboding, and David's conflicted feelings about his sexuality prevent him from finding happiness in his love for Giovanni. As a result, this isn't quite the celebration of gay love that I anticipated, but it's a nuanced, compassionate portrayal of several midcentury gay experiences. I hadn't read Baldwin before, and I'm glad I finally spent some time with his exemplary prose.

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder: The housekeeper narrating this novel is hired to look after a retired math professor, who lives an isolated existence with only his beloved numbers for company. While math may have always been an overwhelming focus of his life, it's now one of the sole subjects accessible to him, because he suffers from anterograde amnesia and can't form any new memories. Every morning when the housekeeper arrives, she's a stranger to him again, a situation she handles with far more kindness than his previous housekeepers. When the professor displays his love of children, she starts bringing her son along, and the two of them become eager students of the professor's number theory lessons. Despite the limits of his memory, the three create a sort of family until the outside world intrudes.

This is an interesting but frustrating story. The characters are all charming, and when things took a bad turn, I was definitely concerned and invested in everyone's fate. The math is explained well, and there's personality in how both the professor and the housekeeper think about numbers. However, for much of the book, I felt the amnesia barely impacted the plot, and a similar story might have been told if the professor's eccentricities lacked this contrivance. There were also a few places when secrets were uncovered but raised more questions than they answered. These issues made me wish for a somewhat different story, but the reading experience was mostly enjoyable.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Lincoln Michel describes the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story: "I'm interested in what devices--engines let's call them, since surely the author is always the driver (even when they're crashing their story into a ditch)--can supply power to the rest of story.... In my own writing, I typically find that plot and character are not enough and that my stories are inert until I find a different kind of engine--a thematic engine perhaps or a structure engine or a linguistic engine--that makes the thing get up and running."